Thursday 15 March 2012

Food for free

This is the lean time of year for those of us in the northern hemisphere. Spring is so close you can smell the new growth but flowering blackthorn admonishes us to wait, winter is not completely over.

I’m fortunate to have a garden and to know my plants. Our food is not all from the supermarket. We’re on a limited budget just like so many others during this difficult economic climate and we’re trying very hard not to spend beyond our means. Harvesting from your garden is both an economic and aesthetic boon.

Two meals we’ve enjoyed this week have been a forager’s salad and a root and nettle soup.

The forager’s salad at this time of year comprises dandelion, garlic mustard, chickweed, sweet violet, strawberry, sorrel, young dock and spinach leaves together with shoots of cleavers, marjoram, bronze fennel, St John’s wort and chives. If the sea holly were slightly taller, I would pick those leaves and anyone with access to wild garlic/Ransoms could use those leaves sparingly (I ate my first leaf this morning and they are strong!). Once the hawthorn leaves are fully out, I will add those to the salad.

If you have a family member who is wary of eating “weeds and hedges”, you can disguise it by adding a grated carrot and grated apple. It tastes good dressed with home-made violet infused vinegar. You could also add nettle, pumpkin, sunflower or other seeds or nuts and serve with fresh bread and protein of your choice. (We had a small tin of salmon.)

Late last summer my father sowed some carrot and beetroot seed in the new herb bed. They never grew very large and the carrots were consumed by slugs. We shall be digging over the entire bed shortly, so we dug up all the remaining beetroot and carrots and I brought them home with me on Sunday. Yesterday I thought I’d better do something with them.

It took me a good hour, standing at the kitchen sink with a bowl of water to collect all the soil to wash and peel both vegetables. The carrots would not have been a welcome addition on their own, but hidden inside a soup; they were a really useful contribution to depth of flavour.

I used both the new young leaves and the beetroots, setting the large ones to cook for pickling and the tiny ones went into the soup. I’d also picked a large basketful of nettle tops from the garden. I was expecting to make a red soup, but I learned that red and green make brown!

Root and nettle soup
1 dozen tiny beetroot peeled
Beetroot tops
½ celeriac root, peeled and chopped
1 basket full of young nettle tops (washed)
1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, diced
1 dried chilli (chopped and seeds removed)
2 large carrots (I had about a dozen tiny ones)peeled and chopped
10 green cardamom pods
1 tsp coriander seeds
2 tblsps crème fraiche (optional)
Sweat the onions in a mixture of olive oil and butter together with the spices for 5 minutes covered until soft. Add chopped vegetables and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes. Add nettles and seasoning and simmer for a further ten minutes until everything is soft. Remove the cardamom seeds from the top of the soup. Liquidise then pass through a sieve to remove any nettle fibres. Add crème fraiche to give a richer soup if desired. Serve with fresh, homemade bread.

These amounts gave nearly six pints of soup. We’ve eaten it for lunch for two days and the rest has gone in the freezer.

I love foraging in my garden. We had our first free salad on 26th February and yesterday’s soup was my first nettle harvest of 2012. I know there will be many more throughout the months, but such harvests prove the wheel of the year is turning once again.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Urban Hedgerows

When we moved into our current house in 1980, we were pleased to see the garden was bordered on three sides with hedges. Two were hawthorn and the bottom was laurel. Laurel is a difficult shrub to manage because it grows so quickly and is poisonous if ingested. Thankfully my children weren’t interested in eating the leaves, but the fumes given off from burning prunings have given Chris headaches so we know to be careful.

Our neighbours living in the adjoining house have been happy to work with us to keep the mutual hedge in good order. They trim it and have put extra wiring against the bottom to prevent their Jack Russell from escaping into our garden. Our other neighbours are both frail and elderly and for the last ten years kept asking us to remove the hedge so they could replace it with a maintenance free wooden fence.

I always refused, so one year they went ahead and put up a fence on their side of the boundary any way. We happily let them through to complete the erection, but when I returned home from work that day, I found they had dug up my entire valerian bed. It wasn’t intentional malice. They had asked me if there was anything I wanted to keep and had carefully replaced those plants I mentioned. I just hadn’t realised how far along the border they would need to rip up. I remember sitting on the garden bench and sobbing my heart out wondering what I had done to deserve such destruction!

Happily the valerian re-appeared, but in greatly reduced numbers. Last year I only found two plants, but today I counted six and there are many at the farm if I want more.

The hedge is still growing strong, but its age has taken a toll. Several of the original trees have died off, so I have filled in the gaps with other species. They say you can tell the age of a hedge by the number of species in any given length. If you select a 30 metre length and count the number of tree species three times to give an average, you can multiply that number by one hundred to discover the age.

I know my hawthorn hedge was planted in 1957 when the house was built so has been in place just over half a century. The original owners planted hawthorn with various shrubs along its length. The lilac and forsythia have been decimated since we took over the garden. Other trees which have established themselves are sycamore and holly, together with the ubiquitous bramble and ivy –all of which produce flowers for bees and fruits for birds.

My contributions have been cherry plum, rowan and a tiny elder sapling which grew from a dropped seed two years ago. It is so tiny, you would never know it is there, but I am hoping it will grow and mature as the years pass. Cherry plum is a historic hedging material which has fallen from use. I found it in a catalogue when
I was looking for spindle trees and decided to give it a go. The green foliage is beautiful and I’m hoping that soon it might decide to flower and provide small plums we can harvest. It is a relative of the blackthorn but doesn’t have any sharp thorns!

The rowan tree was a mistake. I brought back what I thought was a cherry plum when I was planting out thirty five saplings at the farm ( a mixture of alder, red alder, silver birch, wild cherry and apple). I love rowan trees so was pleased I now have its protective properties in my garden boundary.

I also have a self-seeded yew tree next to the ancient cooking apple tree. It seemed appropriate for it to be in the garden given the amount of work I do with grief and dying. I’m watching to see if it adversely affects any of the other plants around it, but at the moment it is a quiet member of the hedge next to my summer house where I keep it well pruned.

A hedge provides more than just a secure boundary. It is home to robins, blue tits, sparrows and blackbirds. It protects them from marauding magpies, jays, pigeons and rooks. Two of the hawthorns have been allowed to grow into mature trees and these are now harvested for their leaves, flowers and berries in due season.

One of the things I missed most when I moved from the Cotswolds to Birmingham was my hedgerows. I would search for ancient field boundaries along the outer circle roads and feel happy when I was successful. I really enjoy having my own hedges in a suburban environment and watching them flourish.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Book Review: Practical herbs by Henriette Kress

After twenty years of reading herb books, it takes a lot to make me excited when something new is published. Henriette Kress’ first book written in English (she has published others in Finnish and Swedish) makes me want to sing, shout and dance with glee. The title, Practical Herbs, says it all. It exudes common sense and you know the author is speaking from long years of personal experience with every sentence she writes.

Henriette is unique. As a child she moved from Germany to the Swedish-speaking part of Finland and is fluent in four languages. Originally graduating from Helsinki University in Economics in 1991 and working as a finance manager for a multinational corporation, she gave it all up to study with the late Michael Moore at the South Western School of Botanical Medicine, graduating in 1998. She is now a member of the American Herbalist Guild.

After completing her studies, she returned to Helsinki to become a practicing herbalist, teacher and author as well as setting up the most comprehensive herbal website which is used and valued across the world. She also runs a medicinal herb email discussion list which I joined 1996 and has provided me with the majority of my herbal education. In 2009, she was the keynote speaker at the National Institute of Herbal Medicine AGM in Preston where delegates could not get over how young she was to have so much knowledge!

The book begins by taking the reader through the basics of herbalism – how to choose, pick and dry your herbs, then how to make and use herbal teas, oils, salves, tinctures, vinegars and syrups. Henriette also includes a list of why your process hasn’t worked or produced something you weren’t expecting and how to put it right if possible. I have never seen this kind of information in any other book and shows she does not include anything she has not done herself.

Henriette has written about the herbs she grows in her garden or which grow locally to her Helsinki home. The book is illustrated throughout with beautifully clear photographs so you can easily recognise the plant or follow the instructions for a process.

Twenty three plants are discussed in detail in Practical Herbs ranging from the well-known calendula and St John’s wort to completely new to me plants such as Beggarticks (Bidens radiate) and Maral root(Leuzea carthamoides). She also describes the plant families and their actions - carrots (carminatives), mallows (mucilaginous), mints (anti-inflammatory) and roses (astringent)- and how they can be interchanged one with another depending on what you have available to you at the time.

Every herb is described by name, family, when to harvest, its habitat and appearance and its important constituents. She explains how to pick and process, including such gems as “If you go looking for this species, take a lot of patience with you.” Each plant’s effects and uses are discussed together with recipes and how to include the herb in your food.

The book is peppered with pages headed “Quick Help for small troubles”. These include painful menses, advice for the flu season, digestive upset, earache, itching, bleeding, toothache and sciatica – all subjects which arise and can be addressed in a home situation. Henriette doesn’t expect her readers to suddenly become experienced professionals. There are wise words of caution such as not to take too much dandelion if you have low blood pressure and to be sure to consult a doctor if you have bronchitis.

What really excited me the most was Henriette’s discussion about Echinacea. I knew you could not use the small root system until the plant was three years old, but I have been loath to sacrifice my plants so have been using the entire aerial parts in my syrups and tinctures, thinking I was producing a much less effective medicine. My joy at discovering that Henriette also uses the flower and, most importantly, considers the seedpods to be as effective as the roots was unbounded!

I began this review by describing Henriette Kress as unique. She has an uncanny ability to provide the struggling “amateur” with confidence. She believes in personal experience and knowledge over book-learning and “scientifically proven” research findings. She has said that “herbs don’t read books” but if they could, they would be proud of what their champion has written.

Practical Herbs by Henriette Kress was published on November 18, 2011 as a pdf file or paperback. Currently it is only available from her website for $5.50 or $32 plus p&p. Discussions with Amazon are continuing.

Friday 2 March 2012

Spring sowing

The past few weeks have been very strange weather for the time of year – incredibly warm and sunny. My garden is very sheltered thanks to two hawthorn hedges and a laurel hedge, so when the sun shines and the wind isn’t too fierce, it’s very, very pleasant.

I’ve always grown a few vegetables, mainly runner beans, but there has never been time to do as much as I’d like. This year will be different since I’ve loads of time and a reduced income means that growing our own food will be a serious help to our finances.

Compared with modern gardens, we have a lot of space with 100 feet to play with, but most of it is down to lawn and I’m a little apprehensive of biting off more than I can dig if I extend our growing space by a large amount. I’ve extended our bottom bed by two feet and reclaimed a border for more veg growing which has historically been neglected, so there is probably over one third of the garden which is dedicated to growing food. Once the last frosts have disappeared our patio area will be covered in tomatoes, salad leaves and other seedlings waiting to be planted out in either the garden or Sanctuary beds.

I’ve also been designating different herbs to different areas. New lemon balm plants have been relegated to shady areas because I know it will grow wherever I put it. Dandelions weeded from other parts of the garden have also been given their own patch near the sorrel in the hope I can go to one place for my salad greens rather than hunting over the entire garden. Two huge patches of golden rod have also been relegated from the sunniest bed to underneath the hawthorn trees because they were shading the roses and I have lots of other golden rod at the sanctuary.

Weeding is a strange activity when you value plants you used to know as weeds. I feel incredibly guilty putting self-heal and nettles onto the compost heap and find myself wondering if I shouldn’t give them their own bed as well. I have resisted so far, because I know there will be hundreds of other plants of the same species who will appear in other beds where they will be welcomed. I don’t have the same anxiety when it comes to red dock and creeping buttercup, since I can’t use either of them except as nitrogen rich additions to my compost!

There is always a dilemma between allowing plants to grow where they will compared with regimenting them into clearly defined spaces. I tend to yo-yo between the two methods. I will let plants wander around the garden for several years until I realise they aren’t an effective use of soil whereupon they are placed somewhere else or reduced to the odd space where they can flower but be somewhat controlled. Mint and sweet woodruff are being managed this year as I need their positions for other plants I have more use for.

Feeling the sun’s warmth on my skin yesterday made me dare to start my spring planting. I don’t have a greenhouse and historically my seed sowing has been non-existent as I left it all to my mother, but as she is not able to do this anymore, it’s now all down to me.

Last March we had a wonderful Mercian Herb Group meeting led by Louise Twigger, Sam Green and Carrie Pailthorpe, all current or former employees at Garden Organic in Coventry. They went through the basics of seed sowing and we all had a chance to plant something. The basil I sowed that night germinated and grew into strong, aromatic plants. I’d not used basil very much before and I really appreciated the opportunity to add it to my repertoire of culinary herbs.

This success gave me the confidence to try other herbs and vegetables from seed. Soon my little seedhouse was awash with seedlings of holy basil, tomatoes, butternut squash, Himalayan pokeroot, sweet clover, ashwagandha and hyssop. Over thirty tomato plants filled the patio and I lost count of how many runner beans and French beans I grew in pots and then planted out. I gave away over forty runner bean plants.

We really enjoyed eating our own salad leaves, radishes and tomatoes and I’m hoping to repeat their success this year. I’m also planning to grow some dried beans which will save me having to buy quite so many pulses at the supermarket for my Nepalese bean soup. I’ve already planted two rows of broad beans in my new border and there are seed trays planted with cabbage, lettuce, carrots, celery, basil and meadowsweet sitting on my summerhouse table in the hope they will germinate soon.

I expect most of you reading this post will already been expert seed planters, but for anyone who is new to the idea of growing your own plants, here are a few tips.

The first task is to prepare the seed trays. Remember they should be sterilised before you use them, so that any lingering bugs from last year's plantings can be destroyed. If you are using plastic trays, this can be achieved with a good wash and scrub, but if you are using wooden trays, you can sterilise them by heating in the bottom of the oven at 160-180 degrees F for about half an hour. Don't worry if the smell while they're cooking is terrible!

Once they're cooled, fill your containers with sterile potting mix, making sure that this doesn't contain irreplaceable peat. There are good alternatives on the market now, so that fewer peat bogs have to be destroyed. Make sure that all the potting mix is broken up into minute particles. This can be achieved by sieving it through a 1/4 " wire sieve.

If you decide to use garden soil and compost for your potting mix, again make sure that the soil is sterilised by baking it in the oven at the same temperatures as before for about 2 hours.

Plant your seeds according to the instructions on the packet and cover them over lightly with soil. If you are planting seeds on the surface of the soil, water the soil before you plant them, otherwise they will float off the soil if you water them afterwards. Cover them with a lid or a clear plastic bag to help keep in the heat and prevent too much evaporation. Some gardeners recommend using a thin layer of perlite on top of the seedling to ensure they don’t become waterlogged.

Some seeds will germinate faster if you soak them before you plant them. Parsley seeds are notoriously hard to germinate and actually need soaking in hot water!

Make sure that your seed trays are sufficiently warm (70-75 degrees F) and are situated in a place that will get light and heat all day. You may have to turn the trays or pots around so that they all get an even spread of light. Some people buy fluorescent growlights if they don’t have enough sunlight, but I don't have any experience of this. You may want to place your seed trays in heated propagators, which plug into the electric, to give the seeds a head start.

Seeds may have different kinds of coats which mean that they require extra preparation before planting.

This needs to be done when seeds have very thick coats. You can either nick or sandpaper the seeds to allow water to penetrate or pour near boiling water on them or soak them.

Seeds which need stratifying are usually those which lie dormant in the ground over the winter. They need to be exposed to a cold, moist environment before planting. Seeds can be tricked into thinking that they have gone through the winter by keeping them in a plastic bag in sand in the fridge for 2-3 weeks. Open the bag, two to three times to allow contact with the air.

Wild flower seeds often need stratifying in some way, but the easiest method to start the seeds off is to plant them either in the Autumn or at least by February and leave the seed tray outside for the rain and frost and snow to provide the right kind of environment for you. Remember to keep the seed tray well watered if you are trying to germinate seeds from water-loving plants e.g . Meadowsweet.

Examples of seeds which need acidification are tomatoes and kiwi fruit. They can be washed in a "grease-busting washing up liquid” or soaking in water with a squeeze of lemon juice in it.

What are you hoping to grow this year and what are your favourite tips for planting seeds?